Balthus is known for the disturbing intensity of his paintings, many of them portraits of languid girls in suggestive poses. Les Beaux Jours, 1944-46, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC
© Artists Rights Society, New York

A chapel dedicated to Balthus, the French painter of noble Polish extraction, is inaugurated in Rossinière, a small village near Gstaad where the artist lived the last 24 years of his life until 2001. To honor one of the most significant figurative painters of the 20th century, the family, the Balthus Foundation and the village of Rossinière have created a space of remembrance open to the public at all times.

“Carry on,” (“Il faut continuer”) said Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rola, known as Balthus, to his Japanese-born wife, Setsuko, as he expired. The Countess tells Swisster that those were his last words.

Setsuko and Balthus, photo Duane Michals 2000

In the days following the death of Balthus, generous donors purchased a chapel on an adjoining property to the Grand Chalet where the painter and his family lived and gave it to the Foundation that bears his name.

The Grand Chalet of Rossinière is famous as the dwelling place of the Balthus family, but also because it is one of the largest and most beautifully ornamental wooden chalets in Europe.

“It was completely extraordinary,” says the Countess of the gift by the editors, Jan and Vera Michalski. “The situation of the chapel could not be more lovely and poetic, close to the garden where Balthus is buried,” she adds.

The Rossinière Chapel by Balthus

But the chapel was beginning to fall apart and it took the determination of Daniel Martin, the mayor of Rossinière, a village with little more than 500 inhabitants, to renovate the structure into what it has become today, says the Countess.

Rossinière needed a way to honor its prestigious guest and friend, but also to protect the Grand Chalet, which is private property, from the increasing number of visitors who pay tribute to the artist, indicates Martin.

Peter Berger, president of the Balthus Foundation, says that one of the foundation’s most inspired moves was to invite Martin to become a member. Martin went on to create the Association de La Chapelle Balthus that has been instrumental in galvanizing the community of Rossinière and in securing funds, including those required to cover the chapel’s running costs.

Two major considerations loomed for the foundation, says Berger. “We needed to find more than half a million Swiss francs for the careful, but subtle restoration of the chapel and we needed to decide on content.”

The Banque Cantonale Vaudoise, the Loterie romande (the state lottery organization), the Gianadda Foundation, as well as various other sponsors responded rapidly to the appeal.

As for content, the Balthus Chapel is designed as a “moving tribute” to the great artist, open to the public at all times. Because it is not supervised, no original paintings by Balthus are on display.

A portrait by the American photographer, Irving Penn, greets visitors and reminds them of the aristocratic mien of Balthus and of the chiseled grace of his face. Three showcases exhibit various documents, including photos and letters.

But the pièce maîtresse is a movie room in the chapel that presents excerpts from three documentaries that tell of the life and inspiration of one of the most secretive and reclusive painters the art world has ever known. Harumi, Balthus’ daughter, a successful jewelry designer who lives in Paris, created the films. The programme will be completed over time.

“I decided of my own volition to make the space more joyful,” says Setsuko, Harumi’s mother, a renowned artist in her own right. “For three days, starting at 10 pm one night, we painted the walls a Pompei red with pigments that Balthus had left behind. It was completely crazy.”

The famous German film director, Wim Wenders, and his wife were part of the artistic commando team.

Because of her “immense charm and feeling”, Berger recognizes that the widow of Balthus is the artist’s best ambassador.

“I am tremendously touched by the amount of friendship for Balthus that surrounds me and wraps me in warmth” says the Countess, revealing the secret of what allows her to “carry on”.

The unsupervised Balthus Chapel, in the village of Rossinière, can be visited at all times.

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: